Museum show of toys isn't just kid stuff Playthings: Teddy bears, tricycles and trains tell a terrific tale that grown-ups call history.


Marionettes loll in an upper hallway lined with miniature

theaters from the red-plush era. Dolls crowd a room nearby, where Christmas is celebrated year round in the Stettheimer doll house, which is filled with stamp-size versions of famous paintings made for it by artists who lived in New York in the 1920s.

At the end of a long corridor is toy heaven: a gallery crammed with rocking horses, electric trains, dinosaurs, tricycles, roller skates and board games.

Toys are always on display at the Museum of the City of New York. But this year the museum is also featuring an exhibition called "New York Toy Stories," through April 27, which is the liveliest and most ambitious such display at the museum since John Noble, its toy curator and doll expert, retired in 1986.

Over 25 years he doubled the size of the museum's toy collection to more than 20,000 objects. In the process, he created one of the finest collections in the country and helped make toys a serious area of curatorial study.

Thematic arrangement

The 500 toys in the exhibition are arranged thematically in showcases and open displays in the large gallery. Some were inspired by fictional characters like Curious George and the Little Prince; others by innovations in transportation like trolleys, trains and ocean liners or by architectural landmarks, among them the Flatiron Building and the Empire State Building.

There are toys depicting movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Shirley Temple. Other showcases display toys children used for tea parties and war battles.

"There are many lenses into history through toys," said Jan Ramirez, the museum's deputy director.

Sheila Clark, the show's curator, takes a more personal view of the collection. "Toys tell stories that evoke memories in all of us," she said. Clark, who is also a consultant to the museum, said she had been struck by how generational barriers seemed to disappear when families visited the show and grandparents and parents talked to their children about the toys they treasured when they were young.

The power of a smile

The Raggedy Ann doll in the show reminded Clark of what was magical about this doll for children. When she saw the look on her daughter's face the first time the girl saw a Raggedy Ann, Clark understood why the doll had been her favorite as a child.

"She beamed," Mrs. Clark said of her daughter. "Raggedy Ann always has a smile on her face. And I was probably not very aware of its power as a child."

The Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls in the show are more than 60 years old, but they are still very much like the ones made today. Mrs. Clark has placed them in a showcase with other groups of dolls that are also thought of as friends.

That display includes dolls of the six characters from the 1977 movie "Star Wars" -- Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Solo, C-3PO and Chewbacca. These dolls became so popular that they were played with -- and collected by -- both girls and boys.

Most of the toys in the exhibition were owned by New Yorkers, and many were produced in New York over the last 150 years, including an 1850s wooden rocking horse -- chipped in places and missing a leather ear -- that is attributed to the craftsman Benjamin Potter Crandall.

Among the 20th-century examples are the 1934 baby dolls of the Dionne quintuplets produced by the Alexander Doll Co., a 1950s Shirley Temple doll made by the Ideal Toy Co. and a Lionel electric train from 1910. Along with the Barbie and Ken dolls, by Mattel, and the mouse band by Louis Marx, all these toys were made in New York.

The White Rabbit

One toy in the show is probably familiar to millions of New Yorkers. It is the fiberglass White Rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland," which was a fixture near the rabbit-hole slide in the Children's Zoo in Central Park from its opening in 1961 until it closed in 1992.

Even more famous are the chubby, cherubic Kewpies, the sprites that were conceived as cartoon images in 1909 by illustrator Rose O'Neill. By 1913, china versions in unglazed bisque were being produced in Germany. Soon afterward, the dolls were copied by the thousands in plastic.

Most of the toys look the way they did when they were new. But their appearance often conceals their stories. A French doll from the 1870s, dressed fashionably in a black dress and blue hat, went through the siege of Paris with her young owner, Grace Tilton, at a time when everyone was starving.

When the doll arrived at the museum in the 1970s, Noble found a crust of bread and a letter in the doll's trunk stating that Grace had shared her anxieties and her food with her doll, Eugenie. Today the crust is gone, but the note survives about a doll that was dearly loved.

Pub Date: 1/05/97

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